Friday, September 2, 2011

BACK TO SCHOOL: DREAD

Picture this: Liverpool Street Station, late August, 1944. And Victoria Station, every year from 1945 until the early 1950s... The penetrating, pungent odor of steam and coal, hot steel and grease, and a thousand scurrying human bodies. The hiss and clank of locomotives, readying for departure. Porters in dark blue uniforms and caps, their push-carts piled high with steamer trunks and metal-cornered wooden tuck boxes, all banded with the colors of the different schools. Mine were black and white. Boys and girls headed for their separate trains, all newly uniformed with skirts or grey flannel trousers, starch-collared shirts and school ties. The screech of joyful recognition and reunion all around. The parents, hovering in the background, watching their children board, some mothers with handkerchiefs fluttering in their anxious hands, fathers looking on sternly in their suits and overcoats...

This is the scene that returns to memory each year at this time, along with the dreadful sense of loneliness and loss, the desperate effort to hold back the forbidden tears. The anticipation of months of baiting and belittling, the teasing that provokes me, always, into that uncontrollable rage my fellow schoolboys delight in seeing erupt. The sense of abandonment by my parents, the unbridgeable distance between school and home.

It's back to school time. The end of the blessed release and protection of the holidays, and nothing but a whole year looming ahead with the prospect of only two brief breaks, Christmas and Easter, back at home. I always had the sense of standing at the edge of a bleak, bottomless abyss of time, with not the tiniest hope of remission or reprieve. A vast emptiness inside, a dread consuming body, mind and soul.

And so it is today, each year, nearly seventy years later, as August leads into September, that sense of dread returns with seasonal inevitability. Tonight, here in Southern California, the art world--my long-time professional milieu--gathers ritually once again at a great, communal opening event to renew its cycle. Tomorrow is the last day of the summer's stay at our Laguna Beach cottage. On Sunday, we drive back to Los Angeles.

I have, of course, nothing more to dread. On the contrary, I have much to look forward to. I'm not particularly active in the art world any more, and have certainly no obligations, no deadlines other than those I impose upon myself. Next Thursday, we leave on a trans-Atlantic flight to London, where we'll spend two weeks visiting family--our son and daughter-in-law and their three children, our grandchildren; and my sister in the Cotswolds. Then back to New York for a few days trekking around the museums and galleries, and likely taking in a concert or a show. Not too shabby, then. Not to be dreaded. But knowing this does not prevent the feeling from returning.

These days, though, I have a way back home. It's called the breath. I sat this morning, watching the body's rise and fall. It takes a while to get past the wandering thoughts, all those tired old memories and the feelings they arouse. But then, yes, once I manage to leave them behind, it's like coming home to a comfortable and familiar place, where the pain and power of old wounds recede, giving way to a marvelously peaceful sense of liberation.

In this way I remind myself that I have no need to return to school this year. I'm perfectly content to stay here at home.


6 comments:

Perry said...

Hi I've been doing a lot of thinking lately and I would like your help. I'm writing a blog that mainly aims at making people happy and helping them with their troubles in life. Would you be interested in sharing your thoughts on happiness and the key to happiness (of course from a Buddhist point of view)? I'd like to post an interview of some sorts...

I would very much appreciate it if you agreed to an interview as I've read much of your blog and find it very interesting. Please email me at: ferdinand.goetzen@gmail.com if you would be willing to answer a few questions that would figure on my new blog.

mandt said...

Peter, I keep returning to the beginning of this essay. It brings up such distant memories, a pastiche of camel hair coats, starchy-shirts, striped ties and the waves of anxious fear that created the survival and quality of small boys at school-----beautifully lyrical writing. I think of 'A Separate peace,' 'or 'Catcher In The Rye. It seems to me your choice of poetry, writing and the art world was very bit a spiritual path as well. Well done. peace, m

ps. I just finished watching 'The King's Speech.' You were so right. it was an exquisite portrait of a courageous identity superbly forged by circumstances.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks for the good words, M. I always look forward to your comments, and value what you have to say.

And Perry, yes. We're now in touch.

Ryan said...

wonderful i like to read more hehe buy valium online

Anonymous said...

Peter, I'm always slow in answering what I really felt by reading your back to school writing.
At the same years: 1944 and 1945 I had to change my names twice and hide in several places, including a potato cellar without heating and food on a dirt floor. It is a miracle that I survived in Hungary those years. I could turn to nobody for help! I did not write this to you to feel sorry for me, I'm doing pretty well, still hiding my scars, but just for a comparison of the time and places which have had strong impression on us.

eva said...

I did not mean to be Anonymous, but could not find the right way to identify myself as I did in the past.